Credit Others’ Work, Because You Should

The Ethics and Legalities of Plagiarism and Copyright

Problems with copyright and plagiarism  were tough enough in the early days of the Internet.  With social media, it has gotten even worse because the speed of production and transmission makes problems easier, both intentionally and unintentionally.

With so many folks empowered to practice something close to journalism, it’s important to go over what you have to do, and what you should do, in crediting other people’s work.

What You Have to Do: Law

Copyright can be a cool thing to help you, and anyone can copyright what they create.  All you have to do is register it with the Library of Congress (and pay $35).  Copyright is assumed from creation, even during the few months it takes to get it registered.

That gives you control over its use.  It doesn’t mean people have to pay you to use it, but it does give you the right to tell them to take it down if they don’t want to pay you. And they have to comply.

If even ESPN is using something created and copyrighted by a high school student, and using it without permission, the Worldwide Leader, like everyone, has to take it down.  No one has greater right to violate copyright, by size or reputation.

On the user end, you do need to be careful about copying and pasting copyrighted articles or photos without permission.  You can usually quote from a copyrighted work within an article (it’s called “fair use”), as long as you don’t take too much.

But if you post a photo or put an article on your blog, be aware that many companies trace their work to protect against unauthorized use. Often, a quick e-mail in advance will get permission, particularly if your blog or publication is personal or has a non-profit mission. And such e-mails look so pro.

What You Should Do: Ethics

The principle is simple: always give others credit for the work they create, and never present someone else’s work as your own or allow a reader or viewer to make that mistake. And laziness is no excuse.

That friend who said something funny on Twitter? Quote tweet it.

That photo that you can download and put on your own Facebook page? Let your friends know who took it.

Among the professionals, and those who are passionate about what they create, nothing earns the label of “jerk” like someone who plagiarize other people’s stuff without giving credit.

Those of us to who are passionate about the idea of creation — particularly the craft of writing — take this seriously because creation is such an important thing to us.  That’s why, whether in the fields of journalism or education — both of which traffic in information and ideas — plagiarism is a moral offense that must be published.

The person who created it might not know it was stolen, and the audience doesn’t know and we might rationalize that they don’t care.

But when something is lifted without credit, it’s like the thief does not respect the concept of creativity and that there is a person behind those words or that image, a person who put effort into creating the quality that gets an audience’s attention.

If you jump past that, you are showing a callousness toward the creative process that, in fact, demeans you as a member of a creative community.  Perhaps that’s why people who do that are referred to as “jerks” — the creativity of a better insult would be lost on the target.

I have often said that poor ethics comes from treating people as the means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.  In dealing with created work, don’t just think about that useful info you are rushing to put into your own work; think about the person behind it.

Develop the habit of giving credit where it’s due, and allow that to develop in you the respect that is also due to the creator, and to the process.





How to Avoid Mistakes

For decades, I have been preaching to journalism students that the writer is the first copy editor.  Often, however, these days the writer is the only copy editor.

It shows.

Mistakes have plagued newspapers since the print-only days, and it seems to have gotten only worse with the multiplicity of online breaking news sites.

I hate mistakes.  Before we discuss that, here are some tips on how to avoid mistakes in articles.

1. Want to.

If you are one of those “future seasoned pros” who find such sentiments an OCD obsession, you probably make mistakes in copy and don’t care enough to realize it.

As for me, again, I hate mistakes.  I hate to make them, and I hate to read them.  If you find a mistake in this post, I won’t just shrug it off.  It will plague me.  If I find an avoidable mistake in your post, I will think less of you as a journalist.

If you don’t want to create error-free copy, you are more likely to make mistakes.  True, a stopped clock is right twice a day, but that leaves 1,438 bad calls on the correct time.

2. Check names

Nothing is so unnecessary as misspelling a name, especially today, where checking online is so easy.  I take off 25 points for a misspelled name, but I promise to restore the points if the student does not make a mistake on a name for the rest of the semester.

The student will promise, “I will double-check every name from now on!”  Um, that was the idea.

Auburn’s mayor has the last name of Ham.  At least once a semester, someone will spell it “Hamm” (though not as often now that Mia has retired).  He and everyone named in your articles deserve better.

3. Do the math

Journalists, in general, are terrible at math. My students tell me that if they were better at math, they would major in engineering and pull down the big bucks.

The math errors that crop up reinforce the stereotype.  In some cases, worse than embarrassing the journalist, it also lets sources get away with some shady calculating.

If you can’t do the math, learn.  Until you learn, get someone to help you.  But take control of every bit of information in whatever publishes under your name — including those annoying numbers.

4. How sure are you?

I play a game with my students.  I will hold a cup of whatever over a student’s head and ask a student about a difficult grammar or AP style question: who/whom? who/that? that/which? comma/no comma?  I tell the student that if the answer is wrong, I will turn the cup over.

The student typically blurts out an answer. “Are you sure?” I ask.  The student often confesses, “No!”  I ask, “Would you like to look it up?”  “Yes!”  Again, that’s the idea.

I don’t expect my students to be 100 percent sure of all style rules.  I am on most, but I’ve had almost 40 years of practice.  If you’re not sure, it takes just a few minutes to look it up.  Don’t just “blurt out” the answer to yourself.

As you look them up, make a list of your most common errors and keep it near when you write.  That will help you identify them and, through your own years of practice, make them second nature much more quickly.

Don’t flip a coin.  (And for heaven’s sake, don’t do it half the time one way and half the time the other.)

5. Read it out loud

Even on a deadline, take the time to read your article out loud, and listen to what you are reading.  A 500-word article takes maybe 3-4 minutes to read aloud, and it could save you some embarrassing errors, particularly in sentence structure.

The whole act of reading out loud slows your brain down by a few miles per hour, to a speed where you can see more than you would if you were merely scanning it.

Here are a couple more tips if you are not on a tight deadline:

6. Sleep on it

I recommend this for research papers as well as article projects.  Complete your rough draft the day before it is due, and give yourself one night’s sleep away from it.  When you give it a fresh look the next morning, you will catch things you did not see during the rough draft.

The idea of procrastinating until your deadline, and then throwing what you’ve got at some unfortunate editor, is one of those many cherished habits of youth that simply become annoying once you claim to be a professional.

7. Print it out and look at it

This works particularly well with longform articles: Before you read the article out loud, print it out and arrange the pages on a table, left to right.  Look at structure, sources. (Is one quoted noticeably more than others? Does a good source pop up at the end?)

One of my grad school professors, Donald Shaw, went so far as to literally cut and paste paragraphs, with scissors and tape, to move them around and create a long scroll of taped pages.  A bit old school, perhaps, but a good concept.

All of these tips are meaningless if you don’t care about what goes out under your byline. Above everything, care about putting out your best possible work.  It will produce work that will make you, your news organization and even your profession look better.